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Turkey: looking east and west

The ongoing protests have only emphasised the gap between the Turkish government and the EU, and between Turkey and Arab leaders whose fear of revolt doesn’t necessarily translate into political solidarity with Ankara.

Powerful premier Recep Teyyip Erdogan continues to engage in a war of words with Germany, whose chancellor Angela Merkel underlined her party’s opposition to Turkey’s EU membership ahead of domestic elections.

Other leading European governments have been more circumspect, but the would-be EU foreign minister Cathy Ashton continues to lecture Ankara on how to behave, further inflaming the already combustible Mr Erdogan. Turkish analysts I spoke to in the Turkish capital told me that the Islamist AK government is still serious about wanting to join the EU, where its economic interests continue to primarily lie. Members of the older, more avowedly Euro-centric, elite angrily dismiss ideas that Turkey is anything but a European country that wants to be accepted for what it is, not what it is being told it should aspire to be.

However the Erdogan government’s approach to the nationwide protests appears to have put it further outside a club that, whatever its aspirations, the Turkish political leadership does not seem to think it will be accepted into, at least not given the most likely political configuration in Berlin after September.

Even were (the currently) sympathetic leaderships in France, Italy and the UK to influence Germany to soften its opposition, many details have yet to be agreed, not least over the human rights file.

That said, EU leaders, and of course the United States, are appreciative of Turkey’s longstanding role in European security, reflected in its part in the NATO anti-missile shield that antagonises  Turkey’s two critical energy suppliers, Russia and Iran. Turkey was part of recent exercises in the eastern Mediterranean and Jordan that had a high NATO and regional component. The exercise in Jordan left a contingent of US marines and F16s behind, emphasising that a NATO-led no fly zone over southern Syria could complement one enforced from Turkey, if Mr Erdogan can get Turks to accept a genuinely international air operation.

I was told by several well-placed Turkish figures that Mr Erdogan would only need international ‘cover’ for this, as occurred in the 1990s Iraqi northern no-fly zone that was aerially policed out of the Turkish air base at Incirlik, as opposed to having clear and undisputed UN Security Council authorisation.  

Washington, while obliged to caution Erdogan against over-reaction at home, works closely with him on regional security and in aiding the Syrian opposition. That close US-Turkish partnership even encouraged a recent public make up with Israel that Turkish analysts stress followed a largely contrived fall-out engineered by Mr Erdogan for regional consumption.

Following the Arab uprisings, Turkey’s apparent eastward re-focusing appeared to have been vindicated. For one thing Erdogan was a more appealing poster boy for Arab political dissent than Iran’s President Ahmedinejad whose once appealing anti-US and anti-Israel posturing soured after the 2009 domestic clampdown. 

Younger and identifiably liberal Arabs in Tunis, Rabat and Cairo didn’t demur from Erdogan’s public assertion in Egypt of the Turkish secularist ‘model’. However the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, then in transition to power, didn’t appreciate this particular touch of neo-Ottomanism.  Some Arabs however continued to favour Turkey simply for disproving both their experience, and the seeming western prejudice that alleges no Muslim country can be democratic.

The souring of Egypt’s supposed revolution hardly detracted from the “Turkish model”, nor did Erdogan’s mediation in Lebanon and Palestine, and between Iran and the international community, nor did his verbal jousting with Israel.

However the assertion of a soft Islamism in domestic policy alienated roughly half of the country, including liberals who had backed his constraint of military power. What has only amounted, so far at least, to statements by Erdogan about abortion and family size, and a relative tinkering with the alcohol law, fed a revolt that while initially focused on a high-handed planning decision and alleged related cronyism, became a face-off against perceived anti-democratic tendencies.

It is this that puts Turkish protests to some extent on a par with the former uprisings in some Arab countries. The Turkish state’s sometimes harsh responses to those protests have in turn made Arab youth more cynical about Turkey, just as increasing numbers of protesters around the world appear to be about all manner of state leaders.

Now that Erdogan and AK have perceptibly joined the club of the authoritarians, it might be that the suspicions of the conservative Islamists in government in North Africa and of the monarchies in the Gulf and Jordan about Turkey’s government will ease. Islamist government officials in Tunisia already were sympathetic in any case, while Egypt’s ‘new’ regime has its own growing dissent to worry about.

However states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE look at Turkey and they see chaos, undesirable popular demands, and a leader who, while helpful on Syria, faces a domestic population nervous about being more exposed to the conflict there.

Analysts from a leading Turkish think tank commented to me that Erdogan has been a disappointment to the Gulf Arabs concerning constraint of Shia-led Iran, even if he has moved his country into a more clearly defined Sunni camp, along with many Arab leaders. Some Gulf investment in Turkey may have political motives, but this is not affecting Erdogan’s calculations, it seems.

Turkey’s embrace of the region’s Kurds as it seeks “peace at home” in the absence of “peace abroad”, is a high wire act that some Gulf states value as it could weaken Iraq, Syria and even, conceivably, Iran. However it is a policy that also suggests more neo-Ottomanism against a definably Arab interest in having sympathetic Sunni Arabs ruling centralised and functioning states in Syria and Iraq.

It is not clear whether a Turkish prime minister who remains strong, but mindful of pubic opinion in the run up to an assumed pitch for an empowered presidency in 2014, will be able to do what the Gulf Arab states would like him to do on their behalf, and act decisively to bring down Assad. Should Erdogan lose to his more pragmatic AK ally, the incumbent Abdullah Gul, then a more cautious Turkey is likely, at home and abroad.

The Turkish leader currently appears relatively isolated. He is not loved in Europe or in many Arab capitals. Turkey’s tarnished relationship with Iran could improve under President Rowhani, but strategic interests, and the fact that foreign and security policy is not in the gift of the Iranian president, put limits on this.

Quite simply, Turkey lacks friends. European allies seem fair weather; Arab states are wary of either neo-Ottomanism or neo-Islamism. The US is an important ally but cannot provide Turkey with either ideological or significant economic succour. Turkish influence in the Middle East is on the wane, even if its Kurdish policy is in place for now, and it continues its neo Ottomanism in central Asia and even parts of Africa.

Ultimately Turkey’s AK government will have to work out an accommodation with domestic liberal secularism as well as with the country’s more conservative but largely democratic and secular trend on which its power largely rests.

About the author

Neil Partrick is a freelance writer on the Middle East, His book “Saudi Arabian Foreign Policy: Conflict & Cooperation”, IB Tauris, 2nd (revised, paperback) edition is coming out in mid-April 2018.

 


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